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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Barefoot" running shoes -- my $.02

It seems every time I look at a running or triathlon magazine these days, there's an article about barefoot running technique.  The book by Christopher McDougall Born to Run has created so much pop culture force behind it that it has nearly become mainstream.  Meaning even people outside the running or endurance sport circles consider running in minimalist shoes to now be the norm.

In fact, the evidence for "barefoot" running technique has been around for many years, and many of us who frequently keep up with the newer research trends have been aware of it for some time now.

I began my transition to minimalist shoes about 4 or 5 years ago.  Notice I didn't say I switched to them -- it took me roughly 8 months to make the move full time (i.e. when I could run a marathon in them).  Switching too soon is the number one mistake amongst runners, and is the reason why physical therapist, orthopedic surgeons, podiatrists, etc, have seen a huge uptick in running related injuries as a result of people switching to lower profile shoes.

I won't get into the why and how of what makes people fail and injure themselves -- suffice it to say that they either aren't a good candidate for running in minimalist shoes (Yep, that's right, not everyone can or should run in them) or they tried to run too much too soon in them.

Today I'd like to share my experience with the different shoes I have had in the last half-dozen years or so.

6 or 7 years ago I was running in some very rigid, motion-controlling shoes.  I was a heel striker who had a pair or Nike Air Structure Triax shoes for the road, and a pair of Montrail Hardrocks with custom orthotics for the trail. 



My education as a PT had reinforced to me, in error -- it was 10 years prior--, that I needed to control my mid-foot motion when I ran to prevent injury (I was frequently experiencing ITB syndrome, plantar fasciitis, among others).  My continuing self education, formally in classes geared towards PTs and informally from just voraciously reading research articles, began to reinforce to me that perhaps there was another way.

When I was deciding what new shoe I wanted to buy I was having a little trouble.  At the time there were really no viable mass-market shoes that fit the bill -- at the time, the shoe industry was still in full swing telling us that we needed the super-duper max-flow cushioning, motion control wonder-shoe.

Then as I thought about it more, it dawned on me:  back in the 1960's and 1970's, before the shoe industry went completely haywire, shoes were simpler; usually not much more than a thin layer of rubber and a few millimeters of EVA padded the bottoms of the shoe.  We used to make fun of these "old school" shoes, since the cushion, the striping, the decals of today's shoes certainly had more pizazz, more sizzle.




So I decided that fashion aside, I just had to get some old school wonders to try out this minimalist thing.  It made sense to do this also because these older shoes can be found online for cheap -- I think I paid 40 bucks for that first pair.  If I can, when I'm experimenting with some new idea, I like to keep it simple, and not have to drop a lot of coin on it, in case it doesn't work out.



I chose three of the shoes I have used in the last 5+ years to demonstrate some of the pros and cons of the varying avenues of the minimalist shoe revolution.  I actually haven't used very many pairs of shoes in this time -- they tend to last so darn long because the proper form to run in them is not dependent on having a lot of cushioning or motion-controlling, which new shoes tend to lose the ability to do as they age and break down.  When you have a shoe that affects your gait in some way (again, by either controlling some motion or providing artificial cushioning) then that shoe is going to lose that ability over time and you'll have to buy new shoes sooner. 

Anyway, here are the three and my thoughts on them:

The Old-School dreamboats



These are the classic Saucony Jazz Low Pro, which was one of the best selling shoes of it's day -- more than thirty years ago!

I was initially a little embarassed, I have to admit, when I first ran in these shoes.  They were my first pair, and I had always worn the latest, modern marvel of shoeware, and these were a bit doofy looking.  But they grew on me, and quickly.  They have a very comfortable fit, the tread was perfect for either road or trail runs, and they have just enough strength through the sole of the shoe that they were good at resisting small rocks from gouging the underside of my feet when I stepped on one wrong.  I used these shoes for 2 years!  The EVA foam in the sole packed down in the first few months -- there was a slight depression inside the shoe where my heel rested, as well as my metatarsals (balls of the feet), and even a couple of the toes, which rather than being a negative, actually made the shoe really feel like it fit like a glove.  After 2 years of many miles, though, they "packed down" a little too much -- I began to feel more pebbles "poke through" when I ran, and so it was time to try something else.

Shortly after this the first printing of Born to Run had come out and manufacturers had begun to offer some low profile options.  I decided to go with this pair of Nike Zoom Streak XCs.  They are made for those running cross-country and track middle to long distance, but without the spikes.

I found these to be very light, having an all-mesh upper, which was great most of the time.  In the winter, however, I'd have to wear two pairs of thin socks with a vapor barrier between to keep the wind, rain and snow from abusing my feet.  The soles were nearly as resistant to poking as the Sauconys were, and the sole performed well on the road and trail.  Aside from the cold-weather short-comings, the soles did wear out faster -- there seemed to be less rubber on the underside of the shoe to protect the foam from getting torn up by the ground.  Also, the all-mesh upper, while light, was prone to tearing, and after about a year I was left with a number of holes in he shoes as you can see. So I got (only?) a year out of these and they cost me about $75, so about 4 times the yearly cost of the Sauconys.

After going back to my old school choice for a while, I recently decided to try a new generation shoe again.  I figured it had been a while, perhaps they had improved the offerings.

I went with these New Balance Minimus Trail shoes. 
They cost me about $100, and I've had them a little over a month, so I don't know what the longevity will be just yet.  They have a very comfortable, anatomic fit, but the lacing doesn;t extend as far up on the shoe as I'd like to improve the fit through the toe box.  The sole is made of a Vibram checker-board pattern of sorts, and there seems to be little to no "foam cushioning" inside them.  They're comfortable to wear, and they definitely look cooler than my previous entries (I think anyway).  My main complaint is that they are terrible at resisting small rock pokes through the sole.  The Vibram is strong, but there isn't one continuous piece of it on the underside; it has that checkerboard pattern which makes the bottom of the shoe articulate more than any other I've used.  I understand that they're going for a barefoot feel, but it makes the sole of the shoe so flexible that I jab the bottom of my foot a couple times every single run -- road or trail.

I don't know how long these are going to last.  I think I'm going to tire of their "pokiness" long before the Vibram wears out.

So for now, still my favorite, considering all of the pros and cons, are the Sauconys.  They don't look new, but the old school style is starting to grow on me (I began wearing my old ones to work on occasion).

I know there are many other options out there, so tell me, which ones have you had experience with?  Any out there that you love?  Lemme know

J

5 comments:

  1. awesome..these are wonderful running shoes..and i learn these topic..i got more idea for shoes..i want to this..

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  4. Thanks for this. I was considering going the Lo Pro route myself, and your experience with the shoe has convinced me to give it a shot.

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    1. I definitely think it's the best way. After all, minimal running is based on being simple.....so the shoes ought to be pretty simple. I don't think there's any benefit to spending 3 times as much for a "new style" minimal shoe

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